Fort Worth — It’s been six years since Brooke Wyeth (Dana Schultes) came home—and, as her brother Trip (Jeff Burleson) notes with wry humor, she’s “already staring out at the desert” and wondering what possessed her. Like the highway sign near their parents’ Palm Springs home, Brooke and Trip both have been tempted to drive right past the place and keep going, to “Other Desert Cities” that don’t have the agita of a Christmas encounter with their formidable mother Polly (Connie Coit) and father Lyman (John S. Davies).
Circle Theatre ends its 2015 season with a heart-twisting and vividly realized production of Jon Robin Baitz’ much-praised Other Desert Cities, a finalist for 2012’s Pulitzer Prize for Drama. With one exception, Circle has re-assembled the cast of the late Jac Alder’s 2013 Theatre Three production—Stage West’s Dana Schultes is the newcomer—and it’s clearly a heartfelt tribute to the legendary T3 artistic director, who spent more than half a century helping put North Texas theater on the map.
And yes, it’s another bickering-family play—but this one’s done right, with sharply drawn characters and dialogue that zigs into disconcerting territory. Director Steven Pounders and the cast make us believe in this family as more than an onstage construct: we feel the emotional push and pull between five willful, creative, word-savvy characters (Cindee Mayfield is Polly’s sister Silda, just out of rehab). Clearly it’s taken years to get this bunch to the tipping point: just seconds from a potentially catastrophic family blow-up, but still keeping up their normal routine of joshes and jibes.
Polly and Lyman, retired from careers as Hollywood screenwriter and actor, are well-known GOP stalwarts who ran with the Reagan crowd. Their “lefty” children make them crazy, and vice versa. Trip works in L.A., where he produces a popular courtroom reality-TV show. Brooke lives in Manhattan, as distant from Palm Springs as she can be without getting her feet wet. She’s a novelist with a history of serious depression, coming home with what the parents hope is her long-awaited second novel.
But this time, it’s a memoir—one that will blow the lid off family secrets Polly and Lyman have spent years hiding. It tells Brooke’s version of what happened to her lost older brother Henry, who as a very young man “went to war” with his right-wing parents—becoming entangled in protests (and maybe a bombing) back in the Vietnam era. Henry “was most of my world,” says Brooke, who accuses her parents of erasing Henry from their lives and refusing to talk about him.
It’s a battle of priorities: left versus right, family loyalty versus artistic freedom. All of them struggle to find the right balance: Polly and Lyman are terrified of losing another child if Brooke’s depression recurs; she fears being one of her “crippled” friends who depend on a check from home. This memoir is her declaration of independence—but at what cost? Our loyalties waver: there are qualities in each of these complex characters that both attract and repel. Who, if anyone, holds the truth of it all?
It’s fascinating to keep an eye on just how much is revealed by the physical dynamics between pairs of characters: Schultes and Davies project a warm father-daughter bond as Brooke and Lyman; she’s fragile and open with him; he’s beautifully tender, wrapping an arm around her, holding her close. Contrast that with the stone-faced standoffs between mother and daughter, whose history of mistrust and anger make mutual understanding (much less forgiveness) an unlikely prospect. Publish this memoir, says Polly, “and you would lose us…just so you understand.”
Tiny Polly is fiercely protective of her big-guy actor husband (and he of her), and she takes a softer, more open tone with son Trip—another burly, genial man who must remind her of Lyman. Burleson’s bouncy, surfer-dude walk tells us a lot about his essential nature, as does Polly’s tightly controlled movement and Brooke’s watchful stillness. Brooke is the observing eye, her sculpted face masking roiled emotions as she continues digging into the heart of this mystery. Lyman is a big, handsome fellow—but with some emotional depth and darkness we don’t see at first. And Mayfield’s Aunt Silda is the wild card of the bunch, her movements edgy and unfocused as the recovering (maybe) alcoholic who has her own painful reasons for injecting herself into Brooke’s search for the truth.
Clare Floyd DeVries’ set, with its mid-century corner fireplace and solidly American colonial furniture, gets the details right, and Kyle Montgomery’s props add other layers, with photos of Hollywood stars and the family, a drawing of “Ronnie,” and right-leaning books like Peter Ueberroth’s Made in America. Over it all shines the faintly rosy glow of a willed perfection, courtesy of lighting designer John Leach. Costumes are by Sylvia Fuhrken, whose choices for Polly Wyeth’s meticulously rendered Palm Springs-wear speak volumes.
All of us, like Brooke, know the feeling of being “so sick of the indentured servitude of having a family.” When Brooke and the parents try to open up a political discussion (the play is set in 2004, just after the star of the Iraq war) Trip jumps in with a desperate “no, no, no”—once we start talking about all that, he says, Christmas will be “shot to shit.”
We’ve been there.
But there’s more to Other Desert Cities than the agreeable schadenfreude of watching some other family go at it for a change. There are twists and turns, and a bigger secret than we know waiting in the wings. And there are choices to be made, ones we can consider in terms of our own lives. Would we be willing to destroy a family to reach some ultimate Truth…or can we live together, holding tight to our own “divergent truths”—and ultimately choosing connection over principles?
“I love you all,” says Trip—and in the Wyeth family, we see there’s love enough to build on. So maybe, just maybe, it needn’t come down to the ultimate battle of Family versus Truth. Maybe we can settle for what Steven Colbert calls “Truthiness”…and never pull the pin out of the grenade that would blow us all apart.
Food for thought—and Thanksgiving dinner is only weeks away.